by David C. Grabbe
At the very core of the gospel message is the assurance that Jesus Christ will return and establish His Kingdom on earth. Our hope is in His second coming because we recognize that we need His merciful intervention before humanity wipes itself out. As things continue to deteriorate, we keep returning to this confident expectation that there is a solution to the problems that mankind faces, but that solution is still just over the horizon. However, it seems like His return has been “just over the horizon” our entire lives, and we may wonder at times why the end has not yet come.
In this regard, II Peter 3 is invaluable for keeping the right perspective on Christ’s return, and especially its timing. As we will see, there is a very good reason why He has not yet returned. The apostle Peter helps us to focus on the right things in anticipation of that day.
The Life-Goes-On Fallacy
Peter begins the chapter with a reminder of all the things the prophets and apostles had been inspired to preach:
Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both ofwhich I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us,the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they werefrom the beginning of creation.” (II Peter 3:1-4)
The timing of Christ’s return was the source of quite a bit of confusion in the first century, and so Peter reminds them that a tremendous amount of God’s Word has to do with that very topic. The Bible contains a solid foundation for at least a general understanding of the end times, even though the exact timing is not spelled out.
In these verses, Peter addresses the prevailing notion that “life goes on” and the public’s scoffing at the idea that the Creator would return and intervene in human affairs. In the previous chapter, he paid considerable attention to false prophets, false teachers, and false doctrines that were troubling the church from the inside. In chapter 3, Peter draws attention to all that the true prophets and apostles had written because their writings needed to be the basis of evaluating what the contemporary teachers were saying. Along the same lines, Paul says in I Timothy 4:1 that “the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons. . . .”
A picture emerges of people who had “the faith”—a specific faith—at one time, but whose natural desires have overshadowed it. They had regressed to the place where they scoff at the idea that there is anything more to life than what they can discern with their senses. As their faith deteriorates, they conclude that nothing has really changed in the millennia of (accepted) human history, so it is doubtful that this world will ever end. So Peter writes to those who have not departed from the faith, pointing out that God’s Word is filled with examples of His intervention, so that they—and we—might be bolstered in the face of the scoffing.
Peter then gives a powerful example of God’s intervention and judgment:
For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. (II Peter 3:5-7)
This example is prefaced with the statement that these people were willfully forgetting what the Bible teaches. He is not describing atheists or people who are totally unfamiliar with Scripture. In verse 4, these people mention the creation, not evolution. They know what is written, yet they choose to ignore or undermine the truth.
If they would acknowledge the biblical accounts as true and meaningful, it would remind them that there is a God to whom they are accountable—which would interfere with their lives. So they perform this mental evasion so they do not have to consider what God thinks of them. However, Romans 1:20-21 says mankind is without excuse. Whether or not a person has been called, ample evidence exists to convict him of God’s existence and standards.
Peter draws attention to the creation and the earth being formed, as well as to a great flood that caused a previous world to perish. This description could apply to a couple of different events. It is usually taken to refer to the Flood of Noah, which certainly fits. The pre-Flood world is completely gone.
However, the world before the Flood was not the original world. In Genesis 1:1, God creates the heavens and the earth, yet by verse 2, something has happened to cause the earth to become “without form, and void.” The earth is covered with water (verses 2, 6, 9). So God re-creates the heavens and the earth, creates man, and later re-creates the world destroyed in Noah’s Flood.
In reading about the re-creation, it appears that the original world—the first estate of the angels—also perished in a flood. So the world that perished in II Peter 3:6 could have been the re-created world, but it also could have been the original world, the one destroyed when the archangel Helel and his followers left their proper domain (Jude 6).
Regardless of which creation and destruction Peter refers to, the fact remains that it was by God’s Word—by His spoken command—that both worlds came into existence, and by His judgment both worlds were flooded with water. The same Creator God is now upholding all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).
However, the heavens and earth of our time are being reserved for a future judgment of fire instead of water. Another judgment is coming, and the ungodly will face destruction. We understand this, but we should also recognize that the warning about scoffers is here because it is possible to lose our present understanding and godly fear. If we allow our natural desires to gain the upper hand and overrule our faith as the driving force in our lives, then the return of Jesus Christ and the future judgment will seem like a fable to us, too. The words of the prophets and apostles will lose their gravity, and our focus will be on simply living for the moment.
Difference of Perspective
Peter goes on to teach that we do not look at time in the same way that God does:
But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (II Peter 3:8-9)
We are finite beings, bound by time, but God is not. As a result, our perspective is naturally short-sighted, while God keeps a long-range view beyond our ability to comprehend. Remember, this appears in the context of Christ’s return, so what the Father and the Son consider to be a short time before the Kingdom is established can seem like an eternity to us—or as if He delays His coming.
The apostle also indicates Christ’s longsuffering as a reason that the end has not yet come. In our opinion, He should have returned already and put a stop to all the world’s wrongs. However, His longsuffering is not due to slowness or tardiness, as the carnally-minded think. Rather, His longsuffering is a gift to us, so that we do not have to perish in His judgment.
Our focus tends to be on how bad the world is getting, yet Peter subtly draws us back to our own spiritual condition. Jesus is longsuffering toward us so that we have ample time to repent, not in the sense of initial conversion, but to turn fully and have our hearts completely changed. In its fullest sense, repentance is not complete until we are finally in His image.
Even though we may be frustrated that we do not see more end-time prophecies coming to pass, Peter explains it as a blessing to us because it means that Christ will not wrap things up before we have had a full and complete opportunity to repent. We can be thankful for God’s timetable, not because it means we have more time to flirt with this world, but because He is providing everything we need to follow our salvation to its conclusion, including the time.
A World of Righteousness
However, the end will still come, and it will catch the world by surprise. I John 2:17 tells us, “And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” Peter says the same thing, but in greater detail:
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (II Peter 3:10-13)
The original heavens and earth came to an end due to God’s judgment on the rebellious angels. The re-created world ended because of His judgment on the wickedness of mankind. Soon, our world will be burned up in God’s judgment, replaced by new heavens and a new earth (Revelation 21:1-8), in which righteousness dwells. That is remarkable in itself—when has the world ever been described as being where righteousness dwells?
This will be a brand new thing. Because our minds are still affected by this world, even the called of God may have a hard time imagining a righteous reality. Simply put, we have become desensitized to unrighteousness. Even though we are—hopefully—not directly participating in it, our minds have still adjusted to what we observe around us; to some degree, we have all adapted to the deviant perspectives of our culture.
As a result, we, too, might scoff at times—not at the promise of Christ’s return, but at the ideals of righteousness. We know that we must allow God to make Christ’s righteousness our own, yet when we see someone working toward this, our carnality may scoff instead of appreciating a place where some of His righteousness dwells. Christ’s righteousness in others may seem unrealistic to us, just like His return seems unrealistic to unbelievers.
Peter gives a powerful description of the violence and dissolution that lies just ahead, adding tremendous gravity to his eventual question. All that we recognize of this world will be burned up. The ungodly will perish. The things that we see on a daily basis will dissolve—the cultures, the cities, the systems that man has developed. With this fiery end in mind, Peter asks, “What manner of persons ought we be in holy conduct and godliness?”
This world is passing away, and everything that is part of this world is of limited duration and meaning. What matters are those things that relate to holiness, godliness, and the next world. All the rest will disappear.
When Christ returns, our response to God throughout our lives will matter. Our house, car, and other physical accoutrements will not. The quality of our relationships with others will matter. Our popularity will not. Our character will matter. The trivia and fickleness of the culture will not. The reflection of God in our lives and our example of His eternal life will matter, but the glitz and glamour of this world are just so much smoke waiting to dissipate. Through God’s Spirit, we have been given the discernment to evaluate what will matter when Christ returns and what is simply vanity and grasping for the wind.
As Christ suffers long with us, is our whole heart focused on the repenting that we still need to do? Or are we among those walking according to our own lusts? Are we are putting far off the day of doom, as Amos says (Amos 6:3), because much of this world does not seem too bad to us? Or are we earnestly longing for Christ’s return, fervently praying, “Your Kingdom come”?
At Peace With the Lord
Peter then begins his conclusion:
Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (II Peter 3:14-16)
Verse 14 mentions peace, yet when Christ returns as the Captain of heaven’s armies, there will be war. The iniquity of the world will be full, and He will fight against those opposed to Him. Peter counsels us to ensure that when He returns, He finds us at peace with Him rather than in opposition.
That may sound obvious, but consider how it might apply. If we are opposed to the requirements of God’s law, then we are not at peace with the Lawgiver. If we are angry with God for some reason, we are not at peace. If we disagree with God’s reaction or non-reaction or overall management of His creation, then we are not at peace with Him.
There can be as many applications as there are individuals, because wherever carnality exists, a measure of enmity remains (Romans 8:7). Peace with God depends on our trusting Him absolutely with our lives. Only then will we not take His words and actions as being hostile toward us, and we will not be hostile toward Him because we trust Him to have our best interests in mind. If our faith—trust—slips, then peace with God begins to fracture.
Peter observes that some of the things Paul writes are hard to understand and that people tend to use Paul’s writings in particular in a destructive way. Even today, Paul is falsely known as a champion of a no-works theology, and his writings are cited to say that God’s law has been abolished. Twisting Paul’s writings in that way is what will cause destruction, because when the Judge returns, He will use His law as the basis of judgment.
Peter leaves us with these final thoughts:
You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (II Peter 3:17-18)
The apostle warns against being deceived by all the things he talks about in this chapter, and his warning probably includes the previous chapter. As the saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed.” Paul prophesies, though, that some are going to depart from the faith. We have seen that happen. To keep it from happening to us, Peter counsels us to focus on growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. He refers to the completion of the repentance or conversion process and our pursuit of salvation to its conclusion.
Jesus is not delaying His coming. He is giving us time to put our houses in order so that we can respond correctly to the work He has begun in us. As Peter says, “To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.”